ididn’t actually want to go to Los Angeles. My mental schema for the City of Angels included a recent Netflix documentary I had watched on the ruthless MS-13 gangs permeating L.A., a YouTube video someone made me watch to revive the memory of Rodney King and the L.A. riots that ensued, and a mental video I had compiled of fast-paced hot shots at LAX after a handful of layovers there. I, like everyone else who has never been to Los Angeles (LAX doesn’t count), had certain preconceived notions that prevented me from even going there on the off chance that I might prove myself wrong. But, when you live in a town with a population of 5,000, with long winters, bipolar springs and short summers, sometimes you need to head out of the hills and share a breath of polluted city air with millions of other people. As much as my L.A. stereotypes were working against me, I had to admit that with a two-and-a-half-hour flight standing between me and some sun, surf, cheap ethnic food and incomparable city culture, it was the perfect destination for a 48-hour getaway.
Los Angeles may have a reputation for being a city plagued by violence and smog, and having a polyurethane and airbrushed standard of beauty, but underneath that is the real flesh and bones, the undeniable truth that it’s a city pulsing with creativity. It’s a haven for aspiring musicians, writers, artists, actors, comedians and the like who can actually “make a living” doing freelance work, or more accurately, stave off homelessness. It’s a population of nearly 10 million people chasing their dreams among the best of the best. There is no better place to witness this incredible ebullience than in Venice Beach, where the notoriety of the boardwalk far upstages the notoriety of the beach. A stroll here will take you right into the heart of L.A.’s imagination. The Venice Beach Boardwalk resembles a cross between a human freak show and stand-in carnival. You’ll find an eclectic group of street performers, vendors selling everything from fresh fruit to funnel cake, a rollerblading cult that never fizzled out with the rest of the rollerblading era, meatheads on public display at Muscle Beach, the rhythmic Venice Beach Drum Circle, street hoopers ripping through outdoor basketball courts like a scene right out of the movie “White Men Can’t Jump,” and my personal favorite: the Venice Beach Skatepark. It’s a $2 million cement playground where men turn into birds.
L.A. puts the “trend” in trendy, especially when it comes to restaurants. 26 Beach Restaurant in Venice is no exception, and the brunch is exceptional. The French toast is the West Coast version of Westside Cafe’s decadence. Your palate will be tantalized with options like banana custard French toast topped with fresh mangos and whipped cream ($13); pasta scrambles like the “eggs verona” that masterfully combines scrambled eggs with linguine, chicken sausage, basil and fresh mozzarella ($14); or one of “the royals” dishes — eggs over brown rice with geographic themes and flavors for every food inclination.
The shopaholic’s vice
An afternoon on Abbot Kinney Boulevard is every shopaholic’s vice. With an unparalleled collection of boutiques, galleries, cafes and salons, it’s no wonder the shopping district was named the Coolest Block in America by GQ Magazine. Whether you’re a hipster, boho-chic fashionista or sophisticated cosmopolitan, there’s a fit for every flare. Waraku carries funky Tokyo unisex street shoes, Heist sells radically-priced handbags and vintage bohemian tops and Minnie T’s offers designer clothing collections by region.
For an evening of primal release, venture to Zanzibar in Santa Monica, a night club where reputable DJs and live bands will facilitate in accessing your inner hip-hop extraordinaire. Dance the vibes into the dawn (or at least well into the night) for $10 after 10 p.m. (free before 10 PM). If you’re feeling extra exotic, salsa classes are offered on Monday nights.
Flight of the chickens
When in L.A., resist the temptation to avoid the tourist trap of Hollywood. If for nothing else than to see doppelgangers of famous superheroes and infamous villains, giant green Ogres, Transformers staging fights or Caribbean pirates donning beaded dreadlocks, Hollywood is worth the people-watching effort. To properly fuel the impending sensory overload, kick off your day with a Hollywood staple — Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles. As the name implies, it offers both chicken and waffles (economically priced, I might add), served either separately or together. It’s a wood-paneled, no frills, diner-style restaurant that will be easily recognized by the flock of eager all-day breakfast goers surrounding the premises. But don’t worry, the length of the line can be deceiving and even discouraging, but you would be surprised at how quick the turnover is at a fried chicken and waffle joint. The restaurant is famous for having won the admiration of celebrity customers like President Barack Obama, Snoop Dogg, David Beckham, and Larry King. If you’re feeling patriotic, try the “Obama Special” — three wings with your choice of a waffle, potato salad or French fries; be sure to order a side of mac and cheese, which has ranked among the best in L.A.
For a post-food coma remedy, Griffith Park, one of the largest urban parks in North America, is a quick eight-mile cab ride away and is open from 5:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. With 4,310 acres of land, a 53-mile network of hiking trails, the impressive outdoor Greek Theater, the L.A. zoo, an equestrian center, the Griffith Observatory and many other attractions, Griffith Park could swallow you whole in a matter of hours.
The oldest tiki in town
If you don’t get lost in Griffith Park, then stop at the Tonga Hut for an evening cocktail before heading to the Laugh Factory for a comedy show. The Polynesian-inspired bar is the oldest tiki bar in Los Angeles. During the years, it’s managed to retain its menu of exotic cocktails and some of the original 1958 decorations. Have a mixologist fix you and a friend a flaming scorpion bowl ($10) to sip in the midst of ambient lighting, super-sized tikis, cedar walls and fountains.
The best medicine for stress
Laughter is the most powerful medicine for stress, and sometimes you have to pay for a steroidal boost of it at the world famous Laugh Factory. With comedians like Jim Carrey, Robin Williams, Tim Allen, Dane Cook and Ellen DeGeneres, it’s no wonder why the Laugh Factory has earned its reputation. Pay anywhere from $17 to $35 (there is a two-drink minimum) to let loose, blow off some steam and laugh like a hyena. Dane Cook makes fairly regular appearances at the Laugh Factory in North Hollywood, so you might be lucky enough to catch his side-stitching act one night. If you enjoy an entire audience’s uproar at your expense, then choose a seat near the front.
As I flew east over what I had believed to be the Cuckoo’s Nest 48 hours prior, I realized that years ago I had fallen victim to the media like so many do. I believed every negative thing I saw broadcast about Los Angeles, so much that it prevented me from visiting altogether. I believed that it was a fake, polluted, glamour-driven city always on the brink of a vicious coup d’etat while artistic geniuses braved Skid Row as they struggled to find their “big break” in a sea of people dying to stand out. Most people in Western cultures do want to stand out, but the Los Angeles lifestyle is, at its core, a never-ending artistic revolution. Sometimes being “sui generis” in a city that breeds mavericks can translate to overwhelming eccentricities and plasticity, but even so, it’s one of the few places in the world where you can stand out and fit in at exactly the same time.